Teju Cole, “Open City” (2011) – Ehhhh… maybe I’m biased because he wrote that stupid article about the Charlie Hebdo massacre or maybe I’m just biased in favor of books having a plot, but I couldn’t get into this one. Cole’s sentence/paragraph level writing is pretty good. But it’s a book about a guy walking around New York (and, for part of it, Brussels). Nothing happens, there is basically no plot.
Here’s what I don’t get about these books about the experience of a city, and this goes from Whitman to Mary McCarthy to Cole (all writing about NYC, it occurs to me)- the idea behind cities is that you pack a bunch of people and resources together more densely than in other places. Presumably, this should create stories, more than other places (and, indeed, it has proven a gold mine for such, as the hardboiled tradition shows).
Why, then, do so many big name writers eschew plot and get all figurative when attempting to describe a big city? It makes sense when the romantics did it for rural landscapes. There’s less of human society going on there. Before you jump on me for just not getting it, keep in mind I lived in New York for two years and still have affection for the place. I, too, have perambulated alone through the streets of the city at night, thinking thoughts and feeling feels. I’d say I’d be as bored by a book of those thoughts, but no- beyond garden variety narcisissm, I think I came up with more vivid and involved fantasies and conjectures than Julius, the main character, does. My star ratings are always about some murky mixture of how much I like a book and how good I think it is. I’m going to lean more towards the latter on this one and give it an extra star for technical accomplishment, but I did not get much out of it. **’